Designing Grief: Personal Memorial Objects
The high infant mortality rate of the 1800s meant that children, who for the most part had never been photographed while alive, became the first targets of the desire to preserve memory via imagery.
Memorial objects such as mourning jewelry and funerary urns practically shimmer with contained emotion. Their primary functions—to comfort the bereaved and keep the departed vivid, present, and safe from oblivion—have not changed over time, though their forms have evolved along with technology. Referencing memory and forgetting in equal measure, reflecting both the other and the self, memorial objects fix or freeze a point in time as well as extend time indefinitely. They derive their power from the stories (ours or someone else’s) locked within. We rely on them to safeguard fugitive memories that would otherwise inexorably fade, and then vanish. Even when there is no access to the narrative of the commemorated—when no one is left to tell the tale—memorial objects possess a persistent quality at once evocative and uncanny.
Yet all narratives are editorialized, open to varying degrees of interpretation. Memorials that incorporate photographic imagery—portraits, photoengraved tombstones, and memorial tattoos—may deliberately create a selective recall, recounting an idealized story perhaps at odds with historical fact.
Last summer my mother mailed mea box of family photos left over from a cellar clean-up campaign. Sifting through the dusty prints, I froze when a familiar black and white snapshot of a round-cheeked child on a Shetland pony slid out from the depths of the pile. It summoned a childhood memory of my grandmother’s house in Queens, specifically the bedroom briefly inhabited by mother’s little brother Anthony, with its cowboy wallpaper, heavy wooden crucifix over the bed, and single window overlooking a tiny backyard overgrown with roses, fig and peach trees. This ordinary five by seven-inch picture in a sterling frame occupied a place of honor atop the maple dresser in Anthony’s room. It was also the most frightening thing I had ever seen—my first genuine encounter with the sublime.
Anthony died of a rapidly progressing form of leukemia when he was four years old. But in the photo, he appeared happy and healthy, astride the pony that long-ago day. How could he be dead? Where was he now? Why do the grown-ups still cry if you ask them “Who was Anthony?” My curiosity, like that of most children, had a heartless and obtuse quality. Nevertheless, I keenly sensed death’s shadow in that picture, and it spooked me. Slowly I turned the print over. Written on the back in my grandmother’s looping Palmer penmanship was: “Angela, 1965.” For years, I had been terrified of a picture of myself, because I thought it was a picture of a dead boy.
French critic and philosopher Roland Barthes famously wrote of photographs, “I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake…I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” As a true index to reality, photographs are notoriously unreliable; the catastrophe we think we observe may never have occurred at all. Photos have played a central role in the preservation of personal memories since the birth of the daguerreotype in 1839. Yet the ability to manipulate images at every stage of the process magnifies photography’s capacity to editorialize memories, allowing us to convincingly tell (and come to believe) the story as we wish it had turned out.
Ever since the invention of photography, people have used it to attempt to pin down and freeze the invisible; the Spiritualist movement of the mid-19th century used the new technologies of electricity, telegraphy, chemistry, biology, and photography to try to capture spirit photos, pairing the iconic accuracy of their subjects with the transparent insubstantiality of ghosts. Today, the ease and undetectability of digital retouching can transform an image into a plausible record of something that never existed—something closer to a spirit photo than a record of reality. What happens to a photo’s ability to preserve memory when the story it tells is little more than a fairy tale?
The high infant mortality rate of the 1800s meant that children, who for the most part had never been photographed while alive, became the first targets of the desire to preserve memory via imagery. Early photographer’s advertisements urged, “Secure the shadow ere the substance fade,” warning that death was the final chance to capture a likeness. For distraught parents, photos provided hard proof not only that the child existed, but also that he or she died. Copies of postmortem photos were routinely sent to far-off relatives, carried in wallets, and displayed in albums as part of a family’s personal history. Within the past decade, professionals have once again entered the realm of postmortem photography. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), founded in 2005, is a national volunteer organization of photographers who make their services available at no charge to families who have suffered an early infant loss, traveling to the hospital at the time of delivery and documenting the experience as completely or as minimally as the parents wish.
Once the only witnesses gazing at the child in postmortem or deathbed photos were its sorrowing parents and siblings; now an ailing infant may be isolated at the center of a bleak composition free of other humans, surrounded and invaded by hospital machinery. Digital retouching allows a reconstruction of the child’s humanity, in effect rescuing him or her from an overwhelming techno-environment. Erasing the life support equipment from the image imposes a feverish normalcy wherein the baby appears more peaceful and safe, unthreatened and unviolated: baby pictures from a happier parallel universe. The nightmare, edited for future recall, becomes a less grim fairy tale.
Editorializing imagery of the dead is not confined to pictures of innocent babies, of course. In several Russian cemeteries in Moscow and Ekaterinberg, the tombstones of mobsters slain during the gang wars of the 1990’s form mirage fields of memorial recall taken to extremes. Looming eight to ten feet tall, the tombstones depict full body photo-etched portraits of the mobsters, flaunting evidence of their criminal success in the form of luxury cars, Rolex watches, and gold jewelry. For an outsider never personally exposed to the fear and menace the mobsters wielded during life, their tombstones may have an unintentionally humorous quality. The size and lavishness evoke perverse thoughts of the body buried below, in direct contrast with the aggressively heroic iconography above ground. The luxury cars in particular fail to impress because they present evidence of an utter lack of success at the moment when a quick getaway literally meant the difference between life and death. In spite of the attempts to have us believe otherwise, those cars are parked for good.
Whether the memorial subject is a baby or gangster, the editorializing that happens during the reproduction of photographs hews to a common baseline: the desire to reshape a displeasing reality. The resulting cleaned-up images may have little to do with the truth, but these carefully curated exit images permit only the preferred version of an individual to become the one fixed in the mind of others as a final visual memory. Perhaps the real story is beside the point; if a primary function of the mourning object is to comfort the bereaved, then the version that gives the most solace moves to the foreground, obscuring the pain of a lost child or a violent death. Such memorials speak in different tones to different viewers; one person may see an awkwardly retouched postmortem image of an infant and recoil in horror, while the parent sees only a picture of a sleeping baby, freed from its prison of medical intervention, an improved recounting of one of life’s saddest stories.
If another key function of a memorial is to reassert social power and position, as in the mobster tombstones, it would be illogical to show the deceased in any other way but in peak form, despite a casual viewer’s potential derision and amusement when encountering these gigantic fictions that gamely try their best to convince the world that the rotting corpse underfoot is still powerful.
As essayist and poet Joseph Addison observed of the tombs at Westminster Abbey, in The Spectator, on March 30, 1711:
I could not but look upon these Registers of Existence, whether of Brass or Marble, as a kind of Satire upon the departed Persons; who had left no other Memorial of them, but that they were born, and that they died. They put me in mind of several Persons mentioned in the Battles of Heroic Poems, who have sounding Names given them, for no other Reason but that they may be killed, and are celebrated for nothing but being knocked on the Head.
Anthony’s photo morphed in the space of an instant from a terrifying image of a dead boy I never knew, a subject of fear and family myth, into an unthreatening, ordinary snapshot of myself on a childhood outing. I set it aside and called my mother to ask if any real pictures of her brother existed. “The summer before they even knew Anthony had leukemia—he was dead by that September—my family took a vacation to Rosehaven Inn in the Catskills. There was a photo taken of him playing with a little girl we met at the resort. After he died my parents had the picture blown up, hand-colored from black and white, and retouched to remove the girl. I forget her name. They didn’t want to look at her; she was irrelevant. She was there, of course, but it didn’t matter.”
A swirl of poppies and their opium-bearing seed podssurrounds the tattooed portrait of a young man with movie star good looks, gazing out at the world through bedroom eyes. His square jawed face bears a relaxed matter-of-fact expression; the sharply tailored suit and fedora cocked on his head evoke the vanished glamour of the 1940s. This enduring portrait on Vildan Ocalan’s right arm is a memorial to her father Selhattin; an image drawn from the only photograph she has of him, taken forty years before she was born, before he became, in her words, the grouchy old man she left behind in Turkey when she emigrated to the United States.
What about those poppies encircling this loving tribute to a dead father? They could reasonably be interpreted as clues to a life tangled up somehow with narcotics, an ingeniously editorialized memory that depicts unsavory details in an aesthetically pleasing light.
“Wrong,” says Thea Duskin, Ocalan’s tattoo artist.
“Poppies do have an unfortunate connotation with drugs, but that was not at all the intention. They are a native flower of Turkey and meant only as reference to Vildan’s place of birth and family. Flowers are often associated with memorials as well, but the traditional lilies would not have been of any personal significance.”
The story an observer interprets or pieces together from any memorial may not be the real story at all. In the context of Ocalan’s tattoo, the poppies also take on an otherworldly quality in light of their association, since antiquity, with oblivion and forgetting. In Greek mythology, Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, flowed around the cave of Hypnos. The shades of the dead were required to drink from its water in order to forget their earthly life. As Ovid wrote in “Metamorphoses” (Stanza XI, lines 581–615):
Before the cavern’s mouth lush poppies grow
And countless herbs, from whose bland essences
A drowsy infusion dewy Night distils
And sprinkles sleep across the darkening world.
A symbol of oblivion used in a memorial could be a perplexing visual and conceptual contradiction, or a purposeful reminder that the process of remembering is closely tied to forgetting. When the Flanders poppy was adopted in 1921 as a symbol of remembrance for Britain’s World War I dead, the popular imagination had to cast aside the flower’s powerful association with opiates and forgetfulness to accept it as symbolic of a wealth of ideas and feelings ranging from war, militarism, blood, grief, and suffering to remembrance, peace, heroic sacrifice, hope, veterans, freedom, patriotism, and national identity.
But these and any extraneous metaphoric associations and interpretations are the viewer’s problem, bearing no relation to the meaning of the memory to the tattooed person. Like other photographic memorials, tattoos are subject to editing. Details are added and omitted during the creative process, and the resulting image may blend reality and fantasy in any proportion its creator might choose. While a portrait tattoo may be an excellent rendering of the photograph used as reference, it maintains a certain remove from the memorialized individual. It does not necessarily look like the person, it looks like a picture of the person: not the same thing.
A portrait tattoo transforms the bearer into a living reliquary—a canvas for a portrayal of an absent person, a seemingly eternal record of the dead. Yet these fugitive images cannot be considered permanent. Instead, they represent a form of permanent ephemera. As years pass, the skin sags and ink fades, and the portrait becomes distorted, undergoing its own aging process in tandem with the tattooed person long after its memorial subject has ceased to exist. The tattoo keeps the dead present in time, but ends up bearing witness to what author and critic Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt.” When the tattooed person dies, so does the memorial and the narrative it contains. Any artifact can come to represent not only memory, but also its inescapable dissolution.